Flooding Crushes Tourism in Estes Park

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[Photo: Hugo Zarete]
<p>Flooding washes out resorts in Estes Park. </p>

The phones are ringing off the hook at resorts in Estes Park as visitors cancel upcoming reservations. Layoffs are happening quickly, especially to seasonal workers, many of whom are immigrants who are barely scraping by. Business could be slow for a while because the main routes into town, Highways 34 and 36, are closed due to flood damage.

Flooding Crushes Tourism in Estes ParkThe main strip looks like a ghost town under construction. For days, workers have been rinsing layers of caked mud off the streets. Courtyards are vacant. Park benches are empty. It looks like it is going be quite a while before town is bustling again.

But from Frank Lancaster’s perspective, the scene looks different. "It’s looking really good," he says. "Actually, it’s pretty amazing, considering in front of my office it was wall-to-wall water from doorstep to doorstep across Main Street."

Lancaster is the town administrator of Estes Park. It’s his job to get things back on track.

"I‘ve been trying to walk the streets every day," he says. "Eighty of the businesses downtown look good. They have a clean bill of health. Other ones had more damage. It’s going to take a while. They have to pull out the carpet and pull out the drywall."

Lancaster says the majority of businesses downtown have reopened. Chelitos, a Mexican restaurant, is one of them. It's on the third floor of a strip mall off the main drag. On a sunny September day only one couple sipped margaritas on the rooftop patio.

Erica Santana is the owner. She’s worried about the restaurant’s future, and whether she can afford to stay open through the winter. Santana says she’s tapping her savings to keep the doors open. She owns two other businesses in town -- a restaurant called The Mountaineer, and a Mexican grocery store. Before the flood she had twenty people on her payroll. Three quarters of them have already left town to look for work. She says her employees are panicking.

Hugo Zarete is leaving town. He’s 24-yearsold and, now, unemployed. His black jeans sag along his narrow waist. He and his mother were laid off from their house cleaning jobs at a local inn. He had a second job bussing tables, but the restaurant has closed for at least a month. That hurts in tourist town where the high season is short.

"I save money to make it through the winter," he says. "Winter is pretty slow."

So Zarete is leaving; he's found a temporary job working construction in Holyoke, Colorado.

His girlfriend, Lucero Lozolla, is devastated. "I’ve been crying the past two days," she says. "I mean it hurts really bad that I know I’m going to be alone and he’s going to be over there. Just 'cause we lost everything, especially our jobs."

Zarete's cousin, Alejandro Rangel, lives next door. The Rangel family might be moving to Washington because both parents lost their housecleaning jobs at a local resort. Friends of the family have told them about job opportunities in the northwest.

Right now the family of five lives in a two bedroom cabin. Ranjel helps pay the bills. He buses tables at a pizza place. But, he says he doesn't know if he will have a job much longer. His boss has laid off five people since the flood.

But Town Administrator Frank Lancaster says fewer jobs will be lost than people think. He foresees a shuffling.

"I think there’s going to be a lot of construction," he says. "There’s going to be a lot repair jobs. So, for people who are in the skilled labor and just labor trades I think we’re going to have some jobs."

Lancaster hopes residents won’t react too soon. In his opinion it’s too early for businesses to know when tourists will be back.

"Some of them are panicking a little bit," he says. He thinks owners should wait for a few weeks before deciding whether to lay people off.

But patience is a luxury that some families don’t have.